2013 First Novel Prize Winner
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
In this luminous debut, Margaret Wrinkle takes us on an unforgettable journey across continents and through time, from the burgeoning American South to West Africa and deep into the ancestral stories that reside in the soul. Wash introduces a remarkable new voice in American literature.
In early 1800s Tennessee, two men find themselves locked in an intimate power struggle. Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, has spent his life fighting not only for his country but also for wealth and status. When the pressures of westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he’s built, he sets Washington, a young man he owns, to work as his breeding sire. Wash, the first member of his family to be born into slavery, struggles to hold onto his only solace: the spirituality inherited from his shamanic mother. As he navigates the treacherous currents of his position, despair and disease lead him to a potent healer named Pallas. Their tender love unfolds against this turbulent backdrop while she inspires him to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. Once Richardson and Wash find themselves at a crossroads, all three lives are pushed to the brink.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Powerful and lean, Eleven Days is an astonishing first novel full of suspense that addresses our most basic questions about war as it tells of the love between a mother and her son. When the story opens on May 11, 2011, Sara’s son, Jason, has been missing for nine days from a Special Operations Forces mission on the same night as the Bin Laden raid. Smart, young, and bohemian, Sara had dreams of an Ivy League university for Jason that were not out of reach, followed by a job on the Hill where there were connections through his father. The events of 9/11 changed Jason’s mind and Sara accepted that, steeping herself in all things military to better understand her son’s days, while she works as a freelance editor for Washington policy makers and wonks.
Now she knows nothing more about Jason’s fate than the crowds of well-wishers and media camped out in the driveway in front of her small farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, waiting to hear news. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason’s dashing absentee father, a man who said he was a writer but whose career seemed to involve being in faraway places. And through letters Jason writes home from his training and early missions, we get a picture of a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities. Those exceptional abilities will give Jason the chance to participate in a wholly different level of assignment, the most important and dangerous of his career. At the end Sara will find herself on an unexpected journey full of surprise.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
(The Penguin Press)
Kweku Sai is dead. A renowned surgeon and failed husband, he succumbs suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of Kweku’s death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Ghana Must Go is their story. Electric, exhilarating, beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go is a testament to the transformative power of unconditional love, from a debut novelist of extraordinary talent.
Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts the Sais’ circuitous journey to one another. In the wake of Kweku’s death, his children gather in Ghana at their enigmatic mother’s new home. The eldest son and his wife; the mysterious, beautiful twins; the baby sister, now a young woman: each carries secrets of his own. What is revealed in their coming together is the story of how they came apart: the hearts broken, the lies told, the crimes committed in the name of love. Splintered, alone, each navigates his pain, believing that what has been lost can never be recovered—until, in Ghana, a new way forward, a new family, begins to emerge.
The Morels by Christopher Hacker
The Morels─Arthur, Penny, and Will─are a happy family of three living in New York City. So why would Arthur choose to publish a book that brutally rips his tightly knit family unit apart at the seams? Arthur's old schoolmate Chris, who narrates the book, is fascinated with this very question as he becomes accidentally reacquainted with Arthur. A single, aspiring filmmaker who works in a movie theater, Chris envies everything Arthur has, from his beautiful wife to his charming son to his seemingly effortless creativity. But things are not always what they seem.
The Morels takes a unique look at the power of art─literature, music and film in particular─and challenges us as readers to think about some fascinating questions to which there are no easy answers. Where is the line between art and obscenity, between truth and fiction, between revolutionary thinking and brainless shock value, between craftsmanship and commerce? Is it possible to escape the past? Can you save your family by destroying it?
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
(New Issues Poetry & Prose)
Motherlunge is an eloquent and irreverent debut novel about first sex, true love, chronic sibling rivalry; it’s about the deepest fear of young (and not-so-young) adulthood: the fear of inheriting a disappointing life. It's motherly advice, too—featuring wigs, dogs, road trips, and medicine—a guide to the essential experiences of being female, "born unto a librarian, named for the goddess of sight,” waiting for the future to arrive. With sly wit and surprising joy, Motherlunge considers the flaws in the family line and celebrates the promise that staggers alongside.
The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
Fresh out of a treatment program and back home, Rhonda tries to stay clean and to get her kids back. Her youngest two have been living with their father, across town and in another world. Champ, her eldest, has been holding it down in the neighborhood, trying to keep on track, in school, and doing the right thing by his mother and little brothers. However, the lure of the street and the need for money has pulled him into the ubiquitous drug trade.
As Rhonda looks for work, turns to God, does her level best to avoid the people and the haunts of her crack-smoking days, her son Champ dares to dream a solution: a house, and a united family under one roof. In a misguided effort to secure funds for a family home, he tumbles deeper and deeper into the rough trade of drug dealing.
Told in a voice that sings with the rhythms of poetry and the language of the street, The Residue Years is about a world of few choices and little opportunity, of drug dealers and drug users, sometimes within the same family. But mostly it's about family against all odds: a son's guarded love for his mother and a mother desperate for a second chance at love with her sons.
Y by Marjorie Celona
(Free Press/Simon & Schuster)
“Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why? . . . My life begins at the Y.” So opens Marjorie Celona’s highly acclaimed and exquisitely rendered debut about a wise-beyond-her-years foster child abandoned as a newborn on the doorstep of the local YMCA. Swaddled in a dirty gray sweatshirt with nothing but a Swiss Army knife tucked between her feet, little Shannon is discovered by a man who catches only a glimpse of her troubled mother as she disappears from view. That morning, all three lives are forever changed.
Bounced between foster homes, Shannon endures abuse and neglect until she finally finds stability with Miranda, a kind but no-nonsense single mother with a free-spirited daughter of her own. Yet Shannon defines life on her own terms, refusing to settle down, and never stops longing to uncover her roots—especially the stubborn question of why her mother would abandon her on the day she was born.
Brilliantly and hauntingly interwoven with Shannon’s story is the tale of her mother, Yula, a girl herself who is facing a desperate fate in the hours and days leading up to Shannon’s birth. As past and present converge, Y tells an unforgettable story of identity, inheritance, and, ultimately, forgiveness. Celona’s ravishingly beautiful novel offers a deeply affecting look at the choices we make and what it means to be a family, and it marks the debut of a magnificent new voice in contemporary fiction.